Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman

I don’t want to give Practical Magic a bad review. The movie, starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman, is a fluffy Halloween staple for many, and I love stories about witches trying to balance magic and love in their lives. And no doubt, Alice Hoffman can craft an intriguing fantasy; just look at Green Angel and Aquamarine. Yet again, I tried to give Ms. Hoffman’s work a shot by looking at her most popular work about life and love.

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Practical Magic follows the two Owens sisters, logical Sally and rebellious Gillian. Throughout childhood, they were taunted and tormented as witches, thanks in no small part to their potion-brewing, curse-spewing, cat-tending aunts. Now grown adults, Sally tries to raise two daughters after her husband’s death, while Gillian becomes a rolling stone, marrying, screwing, and generally philandering…until Gillian accidentally kills her latest boyfriend, Jimmy, and seeks out Sally’s help.

The first intriguing point of this book is that it’s never made explicitly clear whether the Owens are really “witches.” The aunts’ “potions” clearly have strange side effects, and Sally and Gillian have uncommon knowledge of herbs, but there is no mention of cauldrons and brooms being used as anything besides household trumpery. The book’s cover, with its sparkles and high-heeled black boot, made it seem very much like the movie, where witchcraft is essential to the Owens’ identity as they cast spells and form covens. The book may be called Practical Magic, but it’s more slice-of-life.

Sally’s daughters, Antonia and Kylie, have a much bigger role than in the movie. Large sections of the book detail the two girls’ coming into adolescence, and while they’re not as interesting as Sally and Gillian, they make for an intriguing parallel to the main leads. Sally and Gillian were raised in a house that celebrated the strange and unusual, and so, to see Antonia and Kylie discover their unique talents in a more normal environment is kind of neat. And again, it’s never made clear whether this is a strange effect of the girls’ personalities, or if it really is magic. For example, Kylie finds that she is very, very sensitive to people’s emotions, and Antonia has men falling head over heels for her.

But here’s my main hang-up with Hoffman’s writing. She doesn’t necessarily write using action and dialogue. Rather, she writes using action and inner dialogue. She takes at least sixty pages to establish Sally and Gillian’s personalities, their childhoods, and what gets them to meet again in their adult lives, and so, you’re left waiting for the story to begin. The action is very mellow until about fifty pages from the end, when Gary Hallet, a detective, shows up at the Owens’ investigating Jimmy’s death, and suddenly, Sally decides she’s in love with him.

Hoffman writes lengthy and detailed backstories of characters that, on the whole, don’t make a big impact. She writes little tangents for Sally and Gillian’s aunts, but those are given in chewable chunks. Kylie’s best friend, Gideon, as well as Gary Hallet, have their whole lives detailed over at least a dozen pages before the story picks up again, like Hoffman is making up for their absence in the overall story. If these men were a greater part of the Owens’ lives, we probably would be satisfied watching them interact together. For someone who helps turn Sally’s whole outlook around, it would have been nice to see her slowly develop a romance with Gary, rather than getting hot and bothered within moments of making his acquaintance.

And the perspective bounces around a lot. One paragraph, you’re in Sally’s head, the next, you’re in Gillian’s, then Antonia’s, then Kylie’s…it’s kind of exhausting trying to keep up. We spend so much time in the characters’ heads that, on the one hand, you feel like you know them, but on the other, they do so little in the present that you don’t. I’ve always felt like that with Hoffman’s work. She says so much about her characters, and still I feel like I’m watching them from behind a glass wall—I can observe, but I can’t touch.

On the one hand, I congratulate Hoffman for framing witchcraft in such an ambiguous and subtle way, but I feel sad that I never got as close to her characters as I wanted. Sally and Gillian have interesting stories, but so much of it comes from old-fashioned exposition, rather than action and dialogue, that you’re not learning and growing alongside them.

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